Culture for sale

Culture for sale

Going gonzo at the Pasadena Museum of California Art

By Julie Riggott 09/13/2007

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Admit it, culture buffs: Half the fun of going to the museum is shopping in the gift store after seeing the exhibit. Besides offering a memento with your favorite work of art on it, museum gift stores often carry an array of items that are artworks in themselves: an eye-catching vase sculpted by a local artisan, a bag with a unique textile print, handcrafted jewelry you can't find anywhere else. This is the kind of art with which we can afford to decorate our lives.

That's why the California Design Biennial at the Pasadena Museum of California Art is such a trip. You can own any of the works of art on display.

The third California Design Biennial is a fantasy shopping experience come true featuring consumer products, graphic design, furniture, fashion and transportation. There's everything from the quotidian to the futuristic: task clips marked “to do” or “to file” share gallery space with T3 Motion's electric, zero-emissions “personal mobility vehicles.” And the exhibit truly reveals that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes: Atwater pottery is displayed next to a Harman/Kardon entertainment system.

All of the items are either on the market or going into production. “Ninety percent of them are available now,” says Emma Jacobson-Sive, who's in charge of public relations for the PMCA.

The 90 items selected by a jury from 500 submissions received during last year's open call for entries not only have to be beautiful or interesting to look at but also entirely functional, Jacobson-Sive says.

These examples of the best of California design were judged by a panel of experts: Gadi Amit, president of NewDealDesign in San Francisco; Laura Dye, brand and design strategist and instructor at Art Center College of Design; Lisa Love, West Coast editor of Vogue; Stewart Reed, chair of transportation design at Art Center College of Design; and Michael Worthington, co-director of the graphic design program at CalArts.

When we look at art as a dialogue about what's happening in culture, the decorative arts better represent everyday life and how it's evolving, says Dye. While judging the submissions, she noticed that designers seem to be incorporating nature much more freely in product design. I bet she'll be running out to purchase the topo table, a seemingly pristine white table with built-in space for planting.

On a recent Sunday, there were twenty- and thirtysomething couples browsing the gallery. (And guys say they hate shopping.) I went home and told my husband about the TuneStudio and cool laptop accessories by Belkin and the JBL stereo speakers that look like vases.

You'll definitely leave with a must-have list. Maybe it will be a Hess Surfboard made of sustainably harvested wood,  cork, recycled EPS foam and low-VOC epoxy, making it faster and more responsive while also being environmentally friendly. Of course, there was that gorgeous black coat by Mike and Chris with a flirty swing at the hem, widening cuffs and decorative button flap.

It's good to be an informed shopper. But most of the items had no information beyond identifying the title and designer. Details or comments from judges would have been useful. Then I might know what's so special about the Zyliss Cook-n-Serve kitchen tongs. And if I hadn't seen “60 Minutes,” I might not have realized the kid-sized green laptop by fuseproject is a $100 learning tool for kids in developing countries, masterminded by the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child.

On the other hand, sometimes shopping is simply about impulse. And you can't go wrong when you're buying stuff that's obviously museum quality. In the gift shop, you'll find these items from the exhibit: Literacy greeting cards ($5), Adiri baby bottle ($12.95), Jimi compact wallet ($14.95), “Gonzo: Hunter S.  Thompson” collector's tome ($400) and silicone earrings ($35 and $50) by Robynn Molino, the designer of the silicone necklace in the exhibit.

Break out the plastic.

The third California Design Biennial runs through Sept. 30 at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. A panel discussion from 3 to 4 p.m. Sept. 23 (free with admission) will focus on contemporary design, with Richard Keyes and Fridolin Beisert of Art Center College of Design, Katherine Bennett of Katherine Bennett Industrial Design and Ian Cartabian, Art Center alumnus and illustrator/designer of toys and video games. From 2 to 4 p.m. Sept. 30, textile artist and art teacher Christine Mariotti will lead a fashion design workshop with instruction in sketching ($10 materials fee for nonmembers). For more information about the exhibit and workshops, call (626) 568-3665, or visit .

Read a story by PW Senior Editor Steve Appleford about a 2004 encounter with Hunter S. Thompson.


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